Posted: Wednesday June 29, 2011 12:28PM ; Updated: Monday July 4, 2011 1:57AM
Joe Lemire
Joe Lemire>INSIDE BASEBALL

Top 10 second-half storylines to watch this year

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6. The Giants are tortured again

Buster Posey
With Buster Posey sidelined, the Giants' margin for error is even smaller than 2010.
Jason O. Watson/US PRESSWIRE

Describing Giants baseball as "torture" took off in 2010, and the close, low-scoring games obviously weren't an impediment to success, as they rode their pitching staff and just-enough offense to a World Series title. The 2011 version might be even more excruciating -- for now.

San Francisco is in first place in the NL West by 2 games over Arizona. The Giants have taken that small lead with a 46-34 record despite a run differential of just +5, as it flipped from negative to positive with Tuesday's doubleheader sweep of the Cubs. Only one team has a runs deficit on the season and maintains a winning record: the Pirates, who are just two games over .500 (not 12 like the Giants).

In the past 13 years only two clubs have won a division title with a negative run differential, the 2005 Padres and the 2007 Diamondbacks, so the Giants would be only the third out of 84 division winners from 1998-2011. For more perspective on the rarity of this feat, no club won a division without a +100 run differential in 2010.

The Giants are also 22-11 in one-run games. No other club in the majors has more than 17 one-run wins.

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7. How much will the Mets help other teams reach the playoffs?

There are certainly going to be many sellers at the trade deadline, but no team has as many helpful chips as the Mets. Despite injuries to their starting corner infielders (David Wright and Ike Davis), subpar performances from their left- and centerfielders (Jason Bay and Angel Pagan) and the off-field uncertainty as ownership is sued for money it made with Bernie Madoff, the Mets have been a pleasant surprise on the diamond, inching a game over .500 after blasting the Tigers on Tuesday night.

That's not enough, however, to crack the postseason in the NL East, where the Phillies have the majors' best record and the Braves have the league's third-best mark. New York, which trails Philadelphia by 9 games and Atlanta by five, would do well to improve its standing for 2012 and beyond by dealing one or two (if not all three) of its star players who will be free agents at the end of the year -- shortstop Jose Reyes (.349/.394/.528 batting line with 39 extra-base hits and 29 steals), outfielder Carlos Beltran (.281/.373/.489 with 11 home runs) and/or reliever Francisco Rodriguez (3.65 ERA, 20 saves) -- and stock the farm system with good, young talent.

The hardest decision will be what to do with Reyes. On one hand, he'll be in demand by playoff-chasing teams who could use an upgrade at short (the Giants and Cardinals, for instance) and will net the biggest haul of prospects, but on the other hand he's arguably baseball's most exciting player at a time when the Mets need a big box-office draw to boost revenues and attendance that is down more than 3,000 fans per game. And while trading him at the deadline doesn't mean New York can't re-sign him -- and with $64 million coming off the books next year, the Mets might have some chance at retaining Reyes -- it risks not having a chance to make a competitive offer if he were to sign an extension with the club to whom he's traded. It's probably best for the Mets to trade only the other two unless they receive a mind-boggling offer for their shortstop.

There are likely to be several teams looking for outfield help, which bodes well for moving Beltran. The relief market also seems inelastic with perennially high demand each summer, though dealing K-Rod is no slam dunk. Not only might a team object to acquiring a player arrested last summer for an assault at the ballpark, but there are also contractual problems: With 29 more games finished, his $17.5 million option kicks in, and he has the right to block a trade to 10 teams.

8. Injured players returning

On Friday New York Post baseball columnist Joel Sherman tweeted that there have been 1,699 more combined days spent on the disabled list by major-leaguers in 2011 than in a corresponding period of 2010. That's an average of 57 more DL days for each of the 30 clubs.

While some of those players are gone for the season -- the Giants' Buster Posey, the Rockies' Jorge De La Rosa and the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright are among the notables on playoff contenders who won't suit up again until 2012 -- many others will return in hopes of leading their clubs to a playoff spot.

Consider the number of contending teams who will be getting major contributors back within the next month or month and a half: Cardinals (Albert Pujols, Allen Craig and Eduardo Sanchez), Phillies (Roy Oswalt, Brad Lidge, Joe Blanton and Jose Contreras), Braves (Tommy Hanson and Martin Prado), Brewers (Takahashi Saito), Giants (Jonathan Sanchez and Brandon Belt), Indians (Shin-Soo Choo and Alex White), Rangers (Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day, Brandon Webb), Red Sox (Clay Buchholz, Carl Crawford, Jed Lowrie and Bobby Jenks) and Yankees (Derek Jeter, Bartolo Colon, Rafael Soriano, Phil Hughes and Pedro Feliciano).

9. Will innings limits interfere with playoff chases?

To further prevent the aforementioned DL list from growing with young arms, clubs have instilled stringent safeguards against large innings leaps for still-developing pitchers. As a result, several teams in the playoff mix could be without some top starters in the season's final month.

The Mariners' Michael Pineda (7-5, 2.65 ERA), the early favorite for AL Rookie of the Year, has already thrown 102 innings, a pace for roughly 207 over the whole year, yet he's never even thrown 140 innings in a professional season. Similarly, the Rays' Jeremy Hellickson (7-7, 3.18) has thrown 96 1/3 innings, and the Angels' Tyler Chatwood (5-4, 3.64) has thrown 89 innings. All three pitchers are between the ages of 21 and 24, and neither of the latter two has ever thrown 156 innings in a pro season.

Similarly, the Rangers' Alexi Ogando, though already 27, could face similar restrictions because he was a reliever last season who threw only 72 1/3 innings but has already reached 91 so far this year.

10. Can Matt Kemp save the Dodgers?

No, the centerfielder can't buy club but he can give Dodgers fans a reason to watch. On Monday, the same day the team filed for bankruptcy, Kemp went 4-for-5 with his NL-leading 22nd home run of the season to power Los Angeles to a 15-0 win over the Twins.

The Dodgers are down nearly 8,000 fans per game, the sport's largest decrease, and things don't look to improve as the messy and unresolved ownership situation will likely prevent significant personnel changes. Kemp, a year after a lackluster 2010 season, leads the league in home runs, slugging (.630) and total bases (182) and ranks in the top five in batting average (.332), on-base percentage (.417) and RBIs (63). While it's rare for a player on a team with a losing record to win an MVP, Kemp would certainly deserve one if he keeps up this pace and keeps the Dodgers relevant on the field.

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